Peter having denied You three times, straightway called the words You said to him, but he brought to You tears of repentance, saying: “God have mercy on me; and save me.” ~7th Antiphon, 12 Gospels, Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter declared to him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away.” Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Matthew 26: 31-35
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Matthew 26: 69-75
Have you ever denied Christ? I think if we’re honest, we all have. There have been times in my life when I did something that either I promised God I wouldn’t do, or something I knew was wrong, just because I wanted to go along with the crowd.
This is essentially what Peter did in denying Christ. Jesus told His disciples that all would fall away that night, as Jesus would be arrested. Peter declared that he would never fall away. Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed (basically before the sun rose the next morning). Peter and all the disciples said they would not deny Jesus even if it meant dying with Him.
When Jesus was betrayed and arrested, all the disciples fled. They did the very thing they promised not to do. Peter, to his credit, did not flee right away. He followed Jesus to the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas, and sat in the courtyard. Three times, he was accused of being a disciple of Jesus. And three times he denied it, each time a little more forcefully. By the third time, he was cursing himself and swearing that he did not know Jesus. These wasn’t a little fudging. This was a full-fledged denial.
The cock crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said. Then he went out and wept bitterly. And then, he repented and returned. He was in the room behind the locked doors on the evening after the Resurrection when Christ appeared to the disciples. He had been told by Jesus in Matthew 16:18-19, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” And Jesus meant it. He restored Peter in John 21:15 when He told him “Feed my lambs.” In John 21:18-19, Jesus told Peter “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This He said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this He said to him, “Follow Me.” Jesus told Peter that indeed one day he would not only stand up for his faith, he would die for it. And He invited Peter to continue being a disciple, when He said simply “Follow Me.”
Jesus didn’t tell Peter that he was no longer welcome to be a disciple. He didn’t ask for the keys of the kingdom back. He didn’t put Peter on probation. He forgave and restored.
There are many people who promise “I’m saving myself for marriage” or “I’m not going to party in college,” or “I’m going to be a better person, ““I’m going to go to church,” “I’m going to stop looking at pornography,” “I’m going to take better care of myself” and any manner of other things. Some of these promises are made flippantly, I’m sure. People have no intention to keep them, but it sounds good to promise. And some people really are sincere in their promises to the Lord, (and to one another) but in time of temptation, even the best of us can fall away. At the moment Peter promised that even if all the disciples fell away, he would not, he really meant that. He was really good intentioned. And at the moments we commit to and promise things, we may be good intentioned as well. But then something happens, and we go with the crowd, either because of fear, peer pressure, or because we want to.
The key thing is, what happens after we’ve broken a promise, after we deny Christ? The thing with Peter is that he came back, he made it right, he repented, and Jesus eagerly restored him. The biggest mistake of Judas was not betraying Christ, but that he couldn’t repent, he couldn’t accept God’s love. I’ve seen depictions in art of Jesus looking at Judas as he is bringing back the silver, and at Peter as he is denying Jesus. In both instances, the eyes of Jesus convey love and mercy. Judas did not accept the mercies of God. Maybe he believed he wasn’t worthy of them anymore. Peter fled but eventually he came back.
Of all the characters in the Holy Week narrative, Peter is one of my favorites. Because he is us. He is me. I have denied Christ many times, but Christ hasn’t abandoned me. I have come back to Christ many times and He has always accepted me with forgiveness and mercy. Christ has that kind of forgiveness and mercy for every one of us, regardless of what we may have done. All that He asks is that we come back, repent, and accept His mercies and love and start over again. Wouldn’t it be something if we all treated each other this way, if when someone denied us, they would repent and we would find mercy to forgive? Or if we denied someone else, we could repent and receive mercy rather than condemnation? The interaction between Peter and Jesus is an important part of not only the Holy Week saga, but of life today. Peter offers an example of falling but getting back up. Jesus offer an example of love and forgiveness, despite the gravity of what has happened.
Peter offers an example of what to do when we’ve messed up. Jesus offers an example of what to do when someone has messed up with us.
The disciple denied Him; the thief exclaimed: “Remember me, O Lord, in Your kingdom.” 1st Antiphon, 12 Gospels, Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
We are all going to deny Christ at some point or points in life. What is most critical is what happens after that happens. Do we take the path of Judas or the path of Peter? It is crucial for us to know that Christ always leaves the door of forgiveness open to everyone. It is up to us to come back to Christ and walk through it.